World Baseball Classic stakes feel greater than ever before

In a little more than a week, the World Baseball Classic will already be over, and from what we've seen so far and what's coming next, there's a small sense of sadness attached to that reality.

Sure, the conclusion of the WBC leans neatly and nicely into one of the cheeriest times of the baseball year; this special part of spring, when Opening Day awaits and optimism abounds and each fan of every team gets to temporarily assure themselves that good times are coming.

But the 2023 version of the WBC has brought smiles to faces in its own right these past few days, a glowing reminder that one of the very best things about this sport is its international flavor and fervent appeal far beyond these shores. When it's done and dusted, we may find ourselves wishing it had lasted a bit longer, like with all good sporting spectacles.

As much as innovative promotion plays into it, the most important part of making a country v. country tournament matter to the public is making it matter to the players, and if you hold any lingering skepticism on that front, the best suggestion I have for you is to go speak to Mike Trout.

Trout hammered a three-run homer in the United States' 12-1 thumping of Canada on Monday night and has been all-in on the latest rendition of the WBC — delayed for two years due to the pandemic — from the outset.

The three-time AL MVP and 10-time All-Star remembered watching the USA victory in the 2017 final and vowed at that moment to be part of future tournaments. He was one of the earliest sign-ups to the roster last year, which did no harm at all to manager Mark DeRosa's prospects of building a star-stacked line-up.

Trout wanted to headline alongside Bryce Harper, but the Phillies star had to miss out due to elbow surgery. Even so, being able to list Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Pete Alonso on your squad is a special kind of flex — plus, oh yeah, Trout, the best player in baseball if you're looking back over the past decade. Loading Video…

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The USA offense got started early by scoring NINE runs in the first inning, capped off by a three-run home run from Mike Trout. The USA would go on to win by a score of 12-1 after seven innings.

Yet for Trout, even more than the others, there is the sense that this holds something even more significant. As neither he, you or anyone with a moderate interest in matters of the diamond need reminding, he has never won a playoff game and hasn't appeared in one since 2014, due to the Angels' inability to put a winning team around him — even since Shohei Ohtani's arrival in Anaheim.

This, therefore, is a chance to perform on a stage that is different and elevated. The WBC, tightly packed over 11 days, is not the same as the MLB postseason, but it also has an energy that is separate from the regular-season grind. It is unforgiving, and the USA sorely needed that win over Canada after being upset by Mexico during Sunday pool play in Phoenix.

Assuming safe passage from Pool C is secured, the "deliver or you're done" nature of the elimination rounds will ensure a further ramping up of the intensity. Think this is just a good way to have some fun and get ready for the new season? Take a look at Trout's head-first slide for a stolen base against Mexico before answering the question of how invested he is.

"The whole reason I signed up (is) trying to win this thing," he told reporters before the tournament. "Anything else is a failure."

The WBC was previously played four times, beginning in 2006, but there is some kind of enhanced vibe this time. The interest feels greater and there is just a higher sense of importance. These things are occasionally influenced by subtle factors.

A low-key important note is timing, with the WBC coming just a few months after soccer's FIFA World Cup, which is usually held in the summer but was this time staged in November and December. The excitement of the biggest event in sports was fresh in the minds of the baseball stars once the WBC drifted closer and it made the meaning of playing for one's country feel real and present.

"Watching the World Cup and how awesome that was just to represent your country," Arenado told The Guardian. "I don't know if (the WBC) will get quite there, but get it close, at least."

Baseball doesn't have the same global grip as soccer, but "America's pastime" conveys a sense of ownership that simply doesn't exist. It is a game that is shared internationally and is deeply beloved in several countries.

Celebration flowed through Puerto Rico on Monday after its team combined for a perfect game in a 10-0 mercy rule victory over Israel that was ended after eight innings.

The same thing applied in Japan, one of the tournament hosts, where packed crowds have been screaming for Ohtani and his colleagues and simply reveling in baseball again, in a country where COVID-19 restrictions hit hard for a long time.

"It's been unbelievable," St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar, representing Japan for the first time, told the Japan Times. "When you put out the best talent in the country, fans are going to come out and support. "They've been unbelievable."

Modern fans are selective. Fun is a prerequisite for a viewing option, but viewers will sniff out things that are contrived, fun for fun's sake, and without an appropriate level of credibility.

Just as Trout and other American big bats connected freely and frequently on Monday, the WBC is hitting the right spots. It'll be over before we know it. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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